The Frederik Andersen trade is going to be looked at as a pivotal transaction for the Leafs, one way or another. It’s the first time this new management group has added an actual current NHLer, giving up low commitment, cost-controlled assets. It’s the first time they’ve made a long-term commitment to a player who they didn’t inherit. The Leafs front office has made it clear - Andersen is their guy, at least for the next few years.
From what I’ve seen, the trade is somewhat controversial. It’s not seen as a slam dunk great move, and it’s not seen as a totally stupid one either. I think there are logical arguments both for and against it - to be honest, I’ve changed my mind at least five times about whether I like the move or not. I’m still not sure where I stand on it, but here are some quick thoughts that I had regarding the move.
Average is okay
Looking at Andersen’s numbers, characterizing his historical play as similar to that of an average starter seems fair. Looking at data from the 2012-13 season to the 2015-16 season, we see there are 61 goalies who have played in more than 50 games (this is a pretty unscientific cutoff). Since 2012/2013, his raw SV% of .918 ranks 20th (for what it’s worth, Bernier is 25th with a .916, which also shows how tightly packed a lot of these goaltenders are in save percentage). If we limit it to even strength over the same time span, his 0.925 ranks 20th once again (Bernier is 27th, with a .923). Some of the people above him were backups who got a chance this year as a result of injuries to the guys above them on the depth chart, like Thomas Greiss and Chad Johnson - they have slightly better numbers, but an even smaller track record than Andersen, so I’d be inclined to take their figures with a grain of salt.
Obviously, SV% is a rather primitive tool. There’s some evidence that shows goaltenders have the persistent ability to force missed shots (Source). So if we use Fenwick SV% instead (% of unblocked shots that do not result in a goal), we see Andersen show up at 17th. If we compare that to his ‘expected’ Fenwick SV% (details on what that entails are here), Andersen ranks 10th. Without getting too bogged down in all the different versions of goalie stats, it seems clear that he’s a capable, if unspectacular starter.
Average is sometimes seen as a bit of a pejorative when it comes to goaltending, but as the heading of this section says, being average is okay (by definition). Roughly half the league will be in a worse spot in terms of goaltending going forward if we believe that Andersen’s performance is reflective of his future ability. Really, average goaltending is all you need to compete - you just need a guy who won’t kill you on a game to game basis. By Even Strength SV%, Andersen’s historical performance is in the same tier as guys like Quick, Fleury, and Crawford, all of whom have rings as starting goalies. You can win with a goalie as good as Andersen has been. From a strictly on-ice perspective, that’s what matters.
There’s still a few question that arise. This short analysis of his historical level of play has been focused on SV%, which is essentially an average. In my opinion, the average of a goaltender is less important than the distribution of their play on a game to game basis (which also begs the question of whether there is such a thing as lower or higher variance goalies of the same average ability). When we look at averages, we ignore other important data, most notably, variance. However, that would require more research and as far as I know, that data isn’t currently publicly available. So averages will have to do for now.
The other elephant in the room, of course, is whether Andersen’s past performance is truly indicative of his future play. The idea that goaltending is voodoo has become trite, but there truly is a lot of randomness in goalie performance on a year to year basis. Andersen has performed well in the past, and seems a reasonably solid bet to continue to be an average or above average goalie going forward. 38 games ago, so did Jonathan Bernier.
Andersen has 125 games worth of history, which isn’t nothing, but it’s not a lot either. I’m not going to pretend to know how he’ll perform going forward. All I can say is that he has done reasonably well in the past. Our educated guess indicates he’ll likely be similar going forward (he’s near his prime if we’re going by the typical goalie age curve), but ultimately, it’s still a guess.
The cost of doing business
In a cap world, a player cannot be separated from the cost to acquire him, or their contract. Every transaction a team makes carries with it an opportunity cost - the potential gains forgone from the assets used for acquisition. In this case, the opportunity cost of acquiring Andersen is what the Leafs could have done with the 30th overall pick this year, San Jose’s 2nd rounder next year (either by retaining them, or trading them in another deal), and the cap space they would save by not acquiring Andersen (which turned out to be $25M over five years). For simplicity, I will assume the San Jose pick in 2017 is the 50th overall - that’s probably a little pessimistic from a Leafs point of view, but that’s fine.
Frankly, both of those draft picks are kind of crapshoots. Most draft models I’ve seen seem to peg the probability of picking a NHL player at the 30th overall selection at around 40%, and from 50th overall at around 25%. The actual numbers will vary slightly depending on the model used, but I don’t think this is too far off. So the odds that you even get a single NHL player at all is just 55%, based on the above figures. Of course, if you do get one, it’s very valuable because they’re cost controlled for seven years - but it’s not as if the Leafs gave up a king’s ransom.
What also has to be factored in is the timeline of contention for the Leafs. Realistically, they’re likely to make a run and start being a legitimate contender (if they take that step at all) in the next two to four years, while the holy trinity of prospects (Nylander, Marner, Matthews) are relatively cheap compared to the value they provide and the Leafs armada of second-tier prospects make the leap to NHL players (again, if they take that step at all).
Realistically, those draft picks won’t make a huge impact in that timeline (while Andersen will, hopefully), and the Leafs still have enough picks in the cupboard to continually replenish their farm system. So while the value of the traded picks to other teams doesn’t change, the marginal benefit of keeping them is lower for the Leafs than they are for the average team.
We can also compare this cost to two recent goaltender trades - Martin Jones, and Robin Lehner.
Jones was trade from Boston to San Jose for a 1st round pick this year (which ended up being 29th overall, but was likely projected to be earlier than that when the trade was made) and a college prospect that likely won’t amount to anything. Lehner was traded from Ottawa to Buffalo for David Legwand (cap dump) and the 21st overall. At the time of the trade, both Jones and Lehner had less of a track record than Andersen does now, and I think the value given up by the team acquiring the goalie is generally pretty similar.
To be sure, the Leafs are giving up more than either San Jose or Buffalo did, but to me, that’s largely because Andersen has more evidence of being a pretty good goalie. Either way, based on these trades, it’s not immediately clear to me that the Leafs overpaid. This is just what a historically decent starting goalie goes for on the trade market.
This brings us to the contract, which is probably the part of the deal I’m least sold on. The cap hit is fine - it’s the 18th highest cap hit for goalies in the league, and based on Andersen’s history as a league average goalie, that’s quite fair. It’s not a steal, but it’s not a terrible cap hit either. The term on the other hand, is a little more frightening. Five years represents a sizable commitment to a goalie who hasn’t yet started 60 games in a season.
If Andersen replicates his historical performance, it’s fine. In fact, it’s good, especially if the cap rises in the next few years. If he doesn’t do well, it can become an albatross very, very quickly. While this term is pretty much in line with what goalies with Andersen’s level of performance typically get, it feels riskier in this instance because of his fairly limited track record.
So to me, it’s an explicable deal, but it undeniably carries some risk to it. Overall, I think the cost to acquire Andersen is pretty fair, if a little on the high side as a result of the term on his contract. But on the whole, it’s broadly in line with what we would expect a decent starting goalie to fetch on the market (given prior transactions) and in terms of cap hit. In a vacuum, I think this transaction is generally fine.
The other options
We don’t live in a vacuum, however. To truly get an idea of this deal, we need to evaluate it with the context of what other options the Leafs had at the time to fulfill their goaltending needs. The way I see it, there are a few different ways they can go.
- Run Bernier and Sparks (or a cheap UFA backup) for this season. Depending on how Bernier does, you can retain him or let him go, potentially picking up a relatively unproven goalie as an expansion casualty near the end of the year. The team could also just sign a different UFA goalie in 2017.
- Sign a UFA goalie this year
- Target another goalie via trade (potentially a RFA, like Andersen would have been)
Let’s look at these in reverse order. Targeting another goalie via trade is hard to evaluate, since we don’t have a full picture of who is available and who isn’t. The options that we do know are being shopped are guys like Marc-Andre Fleury (fuck that contract) and Ben Bishop (excellent goalie, but expensive and on the older side). Neither of them are particularly attractive to the Leafs, in my opinion. Maybe they can go for a younger guy in a backup/platoon situation? At that point, you’re trading off up front costs in terms of assets/cap hit for the uncertainty that the guy is any good. On its face, this isn’t obviously much more attractive to me than what the Leafs did. Maybe there’s a name I’m missing (if so, let’s talk about it in the comments!)
So what about signing a UFA goalie? The first name that jumps out is James Reimer, obviously. As the best goalie in a rather sad UFA goalie market, it’d be interesting to see what he’s going to get. Frankly, I’m not sure he’d WANT to come back here - if he does, he’s not going to take a discount. Reimer has been paid relative peanuts his entire career, and at his age, this is his best chance at a “set up your grandkids for life” contract. If we signed him to a deal, I imagine it would be a somewhat smaller commitment than what we made to Andersen, but not by that much. Perhaps that would be a better option, but I’m not sure how significant the savings would be, and Reimer has the same concerns Andersen does about never being a #1 goaltender yet. And again, he may not want to come back, after how the team and a large subset of fans treated him (and his wife). If we’re banking on luring one free agent to solve our goaltending needs, that’s not a great plan to me. Too much can go wrong in even initiating the deal to be confident that you’ll get him at the price you want.
After Reimer, you’re looking at a collection of has-beens and never-weres. You can talk yourself into a cheap prove-it deal for Anton Khudobin or Chad Johnson (both of whom have seen some success before) - certainly, that’s a school of thought many subscribe to. Don’t commit money or term to a goalie - just keep churning through the budget options until you find one who gives you acceptable results. To me, the issues with that are twofold:
- It takes a couple years for you to know if the goalie you have is any good
- Goalies in this market are so unpredictable that this is basically throwing darts
Nonetheless, it’s an option that retains flexibility and gives the Leafs an alright shot at having passable goaltending. Depending on how valuable you think flexibility is, I can definitely see someone justifiably arguing for this strategy, given where the Leafs currently are.
This brings us to option 1, which is essentially to kick the can down the road by a year and re-evaluate then. It’s hard to convince anyone to have faith in Jonathan Bernier anymore (this apparently includes the Leafs front office). His year was terrible. But as a very smart and handsome PPP writer argued recently, Bernier’s poor 2015-2016 season may be overshadowing his otherwise solid career numbers, where he has been a slightly worse version of Andersen. He’s a decent chance to progress towards his mean in the coming season, and sticking with him would require no additional cap commitment or assets going out the door.
This would also allow the Leafs to retain flexibility, look at any expansion casualties (I’m not going to pretend like I know goaltending situations around the league well enough to predict any specific names here) and make a decision in a year’s time, with more information (not only about Bernier, but Sparks as well). Personally, this is the move I would have made. I think Bernier has been undervalued because of his terrible play in the last year, and is a good buy-low candidate.
However, the front office and Mike Babcock clearly don’t have trust in him, and as far as external options go, I think the Leafs did a pretty good job of finding one without getting fleeced. The question is whether the Leafs were right to unilaterally lose faith in Bernier. At this point, I imagine Bernier will be traded for literally anything, simply because spending $9M on goaltending isn’t really the best allocation of resources for a team that is cap constrained this year due to a bunch of bad short-term contracts.
Now, it must be said that the Leafs front office is widely regarded as very smart - I’m sure they did research and homework on Andersen that is not just limited to SV% and looking at previous deals. I generally think this front office has earned some trust. To some extent, I wonder if this deal has received mixed reviews in part because we’ve been spoiled with a bunch of slam dunk moves thus far (Kessel aside). This is really the first transaction this front office has made where they’re placing a sizeable bet on a player outside the Leafs organization. I hope that they’re right about it too, because it could haunt the Leafs for a while if they’re not.
All stats and figures are from Corsica.hockey